May 1, 2017

Saint Symeon of Trier, known as the Five-Tongued (+ 1035)

St. Symeon of Trier (Feast Day - May 1);
Icon in the Orthodox Chapel of Saint Athanasius the Great in the Cathedral of Trier.

Saint Symeon was born in the late 10th century in Syracuse, Sicily, to a Greek father and a Calabrian mother, during the period of Arab rule of the island. His father, who had been a soldier of the Byzantine army, sent him to Constantinople when he was seven years old to learn to read and write their native Greek language. As he grew older, Symeon decided to lead a life of a monk, so he set out on a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Afterwards, for seven years, he became a guide, leading pilgrims to the holy places, before tiring of this life and preferring instead to live as a recluse.

Having heard of a holy recluse who lived in a tower on the bank of the Jordan River, Symeon went to work as his servant, living in the lower room of the tower, while learning from his new master how to practice the life of a recluse. Forced to depart, he realized after reading and re-reading the Lives of the Fathers, that in order to become a recluse he should train for a time in a monastery. As a result, he entered the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem and became a monk. After two years there, he transferred to the famed Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt. While he was a member of that community, he was ordained as a deacon.

After serving the brethren for some years there, Symeon gained the abbot's permission to depart to live as a hermit, settling alone in a small cave on the shore of the Red Sea. A monk from the monastery brought him bread every Sunday, but after two years, being disturbed by passing sailors and seeing how worn out the monk who brought his food had become, he decided to return to the monastery. On the orders of his abbot he then restored a ruined monastery on the peak of Mount Sinai, but upon his return he still conceived a desire to live as a hermit, so he absconded and found a spot in the desert. The abbot soon discovered him, and called him back to the monastery.

In 1026 the abbot sent Symeon to Rouen in France on monastery business with Richard II, Duke of Normandy, who annually gave alms to the monastery. He duly set out, but while traveling down the Nile his boat was attacked by pirates, who butchered the crew. Symeon barely escaped with his life, diving into the water. When he swam ashore he had no idea whether the people in the little village he reached were Christian or not, because he was unable to communicate with them in any of the languages he spoke (namely Coptic, Syrian, Arabic, Greek and Latin; this is why he is known as Pentaglossos in Greek, which translates as "Five-Tongued").

Eventually Symeon made his way to Antioch, where he joined a group of some 700 pilgrims returning from Jerusalem, among whom was the German abbot, Eberwin, of the Abbey of Tholey. Symeon joined the group, but when they reached Belgrade the Hungarian officials barred them from going any farther, so they returned via Rome to France. Symeon finally reached Rouen, only to find that Duke Richard the Pious was dead (other sources say he was still alive). In return for the generous financial donation, Symeon left behind a finger of the relic of Saint Katherine, who was virtually unknown in the West at the time and this donation helped spread her fame in France. This finger was placed in the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Trinity, but after took on the name of Saint Katherine, on what is known as Saint Catherine's Hill. It had been placed in a small chapel of the monastery. The chronicler, Hugh of Flavigny (c. 1065-c. 1144), recounts how monks guarded this chapel to protect the relics of Saint Katherine and the holy oil that flowed from it. One time when Symeon was on guard duty three portions of the relic miraculously detached from the main relic and were gathered up by him.

He fulfilled his mission and then traveled around France and Germany, visiting Abbot Eberwin in Tholey and going to Trier. In the meantime Poppo, Archbishop of Trier, (1016–47) was planning a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and, after meeting Symeon, invited him to accompany him on the journey. They set out and reached Jerusalem. Symeon, however, chose not to return to his own monastery in Sinai, instead accompanying Poppo back to Trier, a trip which lasted from 1028-30.

After their return, Symeon asked Poppo if he could live as a recluse in the great Roman gate of the city, the Porta Nigra. Poppo agreed and conducted a ceremony on 29 November 1030, the feast day of Saint Andrew, before all the clergy and people in which Symeon was enclosed in a cell, high in the gate tower.

Shortly after he was enclosed, 'dead and buried to the world' for his love of God, a great flood ravaged the city and country round about. The people now thought that Symeon was a sorcerer whose devilry had caused the flood, so they pelted his cell with stones, breaking the window. Even so, Symeon persisted with his prayers and fasts, allegedly beating off demonic attacks, eating a sparse diet of bread, water and beans, and praying upright with his arms outstretched, lest in lying down he fall asleep. He died on 1 June 1035, and was buried in his cell, just as he had insisted.

Within a month miracles were being reported at his tomb, and a ladder was set up so that sick and needy pilgrims could climb up to his shrine.

At the urging of Poppo, Abbot Eberwin wrote an account of his life and early miracles in the very same year he died - as Maurice Coens has shown. Archbishop Poppo swiftly sent this to Pope Benedict IX, who responded with an official bull of canonization. Poppo then founded a monastery at the site of Symeon's life and tomb. When Poppo died in 1047, he was buried there.

He was canonized on 5 January 1047 by Pope Clement II. Many more miracles were recorded subsequently, and the fame of Saint Symeon spread far and wide. He was one of the last great figures that linked the Orthodox West and the Orthodox East. His feast day is May 1. He is known as Symeon of Syracuse, Symeon of Trier and Symeon the Five-Tongued of Sinai.

In 1041, the construction of the church of his name began at the place of the cell of Symeon. A small monastery was founded nearby. This saved the ancient Roman gate of Trier from destruction in the Middle Ages, when locals used old buildings as quarries.

The Church of Saint Symeon stood until 1803. Napoleon ordered the church to be destroyed and the Roman gates of Trier restored as before, which was done.

For a long time, what is considered the sarcophagus and relics of Saint Symeon were kept in the Church of Saint Gervasio in Trier. In 1971, in the west of the city, a new church was consecrated in the name of Saint Symeon, where both the relics of the Saint and his sarcophagus were solemnly transferred. Separately, in the treasury of the Cathedral of Trier, Symeon's Greek Lectionary and a knitted monastic cap of black wool sheep are preserved. Unfortunately, the Euchologion belonging to him, which was written in Palestine before 1030, from which Ambrosius Pelargus translated into Latin the Liturgy of John Chrysostom (1540, published in Worms In 1541), has been lost.

For centuries pilgrims would visit Saint Symeon's relics. At present, this tradition is lost, but it is being restored by Orthodox believers living in Germany.

St. Symeon as a hermit in the Porta Nigra (oil painting from the 18th century).

Statue of St. Symeon in Trier, Germany.

St. Symeon in the vestments of a deacon being attacked by demons.

This is all that remains of the 11th century Romanesque church of St. Catherine on Saint Catherine's Hill in Rouen, France. The reason for the church’s destruction and when it occurred has been lost to us, as well as the whereabouts of St. Catherine’s relic.

The place of the cell of St. Symeon in the Roman gates of Port Nigra (Trier).

Sarcophagus of St. Symeon